At Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre, They’re Playing Our Song (book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, music by Marvin Hamlisch) was a perfect candidate for revival as part of the company’s “Porchlight Revisits” series that rediscovers and stages rarely-done gems of the American musical canon in limited run. Under this microscope, we ask, “Why has this show disappeared?” and, more importantly, “Does this show have the capacity to entertain a modern audience?”
Diving into those questions was the essence of Porchlight’s endeavor. But the odds were certainly stacked in They’re Playing Our Song’s favor: the musical was written by one of the most popular playwrights in American theatre, with music by some of the top tune smiths of their day, produced a number of hit songs, featured a small cast, garnered a Best Musical Tony nomination, and was performed internationally for years. They’re Playing Our Song, much like the 1970s Broadway hits Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Pippin, A Little Night Music, Seesaw, The Act, and more, produced songs that became popular hits of the era beyond their theatrical origin. Appearing at the height of Neil Simon’s career, the show landed right between his huge hits California Suite (1976) and Chapter Two (1977) and right before
I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980) and Fools (1981). They’re Playing Our Song was the kind of laugh-out-loud Rom-Com that theatre audiences were craving in a season that included the heavy going offered by musicals like Sweeney Todd, Ballroom and I Remember Mama. It was funny, quirky, romantic with a classic “meet cute,” as well as a unique theatrical device that solves the conundrum of how to populate the rest of New York in what is, essentially, a two-hander.
Aside from the laugh-out-loud book, one of They’re Playing Our Song’s greatest strengths is the authentically appropriate Hamlisch/Bayer Sager songs that set the tone and tune of this, demonstrably, 1979 story. Many shows have had to weather falling out of favor as time progressed, but They’re Playing Our Song, like Hair and A Chorus Line, boasts a score that is so genuinely supportive to encapsulating the era in which the story is set as to be essential in what makes the piece succeed today. There are those productions such as South Pacific, Bells Are Ringing and West Side Story that, in their time, were terrific examples of the here and now. But many such titles could not survive a transition to becoming a period piece, nor find the rebirth that comes with our curiosity of things popular from another age – like life and times of the late 1970s. It will be interesting to see what contemporary-set productions can cross this bridge to revival interest and achieve long-term success.
For the mission statement of Porchlight Revisits, They’re Playing Our Song was a great success, plus a genuinely funny and tuneful musical to spend some time with.
(photo: Austin Packard)